U.S. Men Have More Distorted Body Image Than Asians

Men in the U.S. and Europe are more likely to overestimate female desire for muscular mates than their East Asian counterparts.Men in the U.S. and Europe are more likely to overestimate female desire for muscular mates than their East Asian counterparts, says a study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Western men said women preferred a physique with 20 pounds to 30 pounds more muscle than the average man. Yet when asked what type of male body they liked most, women chose men without the added bulk, according to the research by Belmont, Massachusetts- based McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Taiwanese men correctly noted that women don't desire muscle- bound men. The study's findings may help explain why male body image disorders and anabolic steroid abuse are problems in Western cultures, yet almost nonexistent in Asia, said Harrison Pope, head of McLean Hospital's Biological Psychiatry Laboratory.

``Steroid abuse is just not an issue in Pacific Rim countries,'' Pope said in an interview. ``Even though one can easily buy steroids in places like Beijing without a doctor's prescription.''

The researchers, led by Harvard undergraduate student Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, asked 55 male university students in Taiwan to select pictures closest to their own bodies, the body they'd like to have, the body of the average Taiwanese male and the body that Taiwanese women prefer.

The results were then compared with results from similar studies done in the U.S., France and Austria.

``Western men are much more concerned about looking muscular than men in the Pacific Rim,'' said Pope, one of the study's senior authors.

Muscle-Bound Statues

The difference in cultures is one possible explanation, according to the article. For example, statues from Ancient Greece typically show men and gods with ample muscle. In China, home to Confucius -- the ancient philosopher known for his wise sayings -- sculptures rarely depict male brawn.

``There's more tradition of muscle and physical prowess in Western culture,'' Pope said. ``Whereas the Chinese idea of masculinity has more to do with fortitude of character and intellect.''

One reason for the difference also could be that Western males, unlike Asians, are bombarded with images of muscular men in advertisements. From 1958 to 1998, about 20 percent of U.S. print ads showed undressed female models, according to the researchers' analysis of two leading American women's magazines.

Undressed Models

The share of undressed male models rose from 3 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent in the 1990s, the study said.

Recent Taiwanese magazines show Western men and women undressed in almost half of the ads while Asian men are unclothed in just 5 percent of the cases.

``This suggests that, at least in the judgment of advertisers, body appearance isn't a prime criterion for defining a Chinese male as masculine, admirable or desirable,'' the study said.

Another possible explanation about why Westerners are so preoccupied with muscles is that women in the U.S. and Europe have more parity with men than their counterparts in East Asia, the study said.

``Nowadays, women can do almost anything that a man can do with one exception: They can't bench press 315 pounds, no matter what the Supreme Court says,'' Pope said. ``It may be a last refuge of masculinity for some men in the West.''

The research contrasts with prior studies showing that Western women overestimate how thin men prefer them to be, said Pope, whose interest in body image distortion began with the study of female eating disorders in the 1980s.


He said recent headlines about steroid abuse among professional athletes and U.S. teenagers drew him to the study.

Coaches, parents and drug-abuse specialists have long considered anabolic steroids an issue of concern in professional bodybuilding and at the elite level of sports. Now, as steroids gain a foothold in U.S. high schools, some are starting to place steroid abuse in the same category as marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.

In 1991, 2.1 percent of 12th-graders reported they'd taken anabolic steroids at least once in their lives, according to an annual survey of student drug use commissioned by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2003, that had grown to 3.5 percent of seniors.

Not all the students using steroids were athletes. Some are trying to emulate male models, not sport stars, according to a recent report from the University of Michigan.

The phenomenon has led to the new psychological diagnosis of muscle dysmorphia, sometimes referred to a "bigorexia" or "reverse anorexia," according to the National Eating Disorders Association, a nonprofit group based in Seattle.

Male body image disorders, rare in Asia with only a single known case, now afflicts as many as 2 percent of Western men, the McLean Hospital study said.

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APA Reference
Gluck, S. (2008, December 12). U.S. Men Have More Distorted Body Image Than Asians, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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